Pew poll follows up on controversial one

WASHINGTON — A new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that a significant minority of self-identified evangelicals believe that many religions can lead to salvation, even though some of those evangelicals apparently are confused over what the term "religion" means.

The poll seeks to bring clarity to a much-criticized poll by Pew in June that found 70 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of white evangelicals, believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life." Several Christian commentators criticized that first survey's general wording, saying that Christians often refer to their denomination as their religion. In other words, those critics wondered: Were the evangelicals who were polled saying they believe people within multiple Christian denominations can obtain eternal life, or were they saying that Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus also have a path to salvation?

The new poll asked follow-up questions, and its findings do — as least partially — support the claims of those critics. Nevertheless, the poll contains very little good news for the evangelical church.

In the new survey, 47 percent of professing evangelicals said they believe "many religions can lead to eternal life," a decline of nine points from the earlier poll. Pew then asked that same group how many non-Christian religions they believe can lead to eternal life. More than one-fourth (28 percent) said "none," giving credence to the theory that some evangelicals confused "denominations" with "religions." Still, 72 percent of those who said "many religions can lead to eternal life" cited at least one other non-Christian religion.

Among the general population, 65 percent of Americans — a drop from 70 percent in the earlier poll — said there are many paths to salvation.

The fact that a significant number of professing evangelicals reject a key biblical doctrine should be a great concern, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said.

"[T]his report reveals that a good number of those who attend evangelical churches either misunderstand or repudiate the Gospel," Mohler wrote on his website. "The New Testament reveals not only that Jesus claimed to be the only way to the Father [see John 14:6] but also that the Gospel of Christ is the only message that saves [see Romans 10]. This claim has been central to evangelical conviction — at least until now.

"I am confident that much of this confusion can be traced to the superficiality that marks far too many evangelical pulpits. The disappearance of doctrinal understanding and evangelical demonstration can be traced directly to the decline in expository preaching and doctrinal instruction. A loss of evangelistic and missionary commitment can be fully expected as a direct result of this confusion or repudiation of the Gospel."

Mohler's concern about a lack of biblical preaching was underscored in a 2004 survey by The Barna Group, which found that only 51 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors affirmed six core biblical beliefs (such as the sinless nature of Jesus and the literal existence of Satan). The Barna study, though, found a large divide between various denominations. For instance, 71 percent of Southern Baptist pastors affirmed those six beliefs, compared to only 28 percent of mainline pastors.

The newest Pew survey found that church attendance made a difference in one's beliefs. It also discovered a striking gap in beliefs between evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestants. Among white evangelical Protestants who attend church weekly, 37 percent — a drop in 10 points from the earlier stat — said "many religions can lead to eternal life." But among white mainline Protestants who attend church weekly, 75 percent believe there are multiple paths to salvation, and among white Catholics who attend church weekly, 85 percent hold to that view.

The latest Pew poll surveyed 2,905 adults July 31-Aug. 10.

BP